A Healthy Office Makeover

Healthy Living
on March 1, 2009
Lilly Echeverria

In February of 2007, Alison Austin led the 19 employees of the Miami social services center she heads up on a rather unconventional field trip: The all-woman staff tromped as one to a health fair for a heart work-up. The news was sobering. Every single one of them had an elevated risk for heart attack or stroke. In fact, one woman's blood pressure was so high, she was nearly sent to the hospital that very day.

The report was upsetting, but not altogether surprising. When Austin, 49, joined the Belafonte Talcolcy Center (BTC) as CEO the previous year, she was charged with revamping the organization's image. Serving as healthy role models for disadvantaged youth and families in one of the city's poorest neighborhoods meant overhauling the staff's fast-food-focused eating habits and encouraging them to move more. The good news: Just before joining the BTC, Austin had embarked on her own personal mission to be "fit and fine at 50," she says. So she had the perfect attitude for the task.

Austin's extreme office makeover started out being anything but extreme. She began by gently joking, "Anyone who brings fast food into the building will be fined." But when Austin found apples, strawberries and rice cakes in the cafeteria six months into the endeavor, she knew something special was happening. Encouraged by the changes, Austin hired a nutritionist—out of her own pocket—to work with staff, teaching them how to downsize portions and decipher food labels. "For many of them, this was their first exposure to the food pyramid," Austin says of the largely African-American and Haitian-American staff. "This conversation is not had in our homes, our schools, our community centers." She also hired husband-and-wife trainers to lead kickboxing and weight workouts and fired the office caterer for refusing to swap whole wheat for white bread.

Today, two years after the health fair, Austin's staff has lost a total of more than 180 pounds. The employee who almost ended up in the hospital took a leave of absence to focus on her health; she has dropped over 40 pounds and her blood pressure is now normal. Austin herself has shed 22 pounds and says her healthy habits at work have taken root in her home, where whole milk has been replaced with one percent and vegetables are included with every meal.

And as a boss, she sees benefits beyond the physical. "There has been a definite increase in teamwork among our staff and improved energy all around," Austin says.

Austin is thrilled at her staff's success and their credibility in the community because of it. "Our family and friends are dying from diabetes, and everybody you know has high blood pressure," she says. "We must do our part to create awareness, the first step to change. We can't help children get better if we are not walking the walk." Now they are.

Have a Healthier 9-to-5

Unfortunately, not everyone has a boss like Alison Austin. But whether you work in a cubicle or the corner office, there are ways to make your office experience better for your body and mind. Check out these tips.

  • Snack smart. Most people in the office are not setting aside dedicated time to eat lunch, says registered dietitian Dave Grotto, author of 101 Foods That Could Save Your Life! Instead, they're trying to polish their next Powerpoint presentation while wolfing down whatever's available. "When you don't pay attention, you overeat," he says. Breaking for a real meal is preferable, but when that's not possible, fill mini zip-top bags with nuts and dried fruit and keep them in your desk. The nuts offer blood sugar-stabilizing protein and hunger-satisfying fat; the fruit provides carbs for energy.
  • Take a yoga break. Yoga can offer flexibility, strength and mental clarity, explains yoga teacher and registered dietitian Beverly Price. Hijack an empty conference room and pop in a yoga DVD or talk to your boss about starting up classes.
  • Eat for energy. Research shows that most adults are potassium-defcient, Grotto says, and "fatigue may be related to low potassium levels." A medium-size (six-inch) banana supplies about 422 mg of potassium, 9 percent of the daily quota of 4,700 mg for adults. Snack on them and other potassium-rich foods like citrus fruits, melons and nuts to keep your energy levels up.
  • Work out in your chair. A few simple moves can turn a typical desk chair into a piece of exercise equipment. Physical therapist Ethel Frese of Saint Louis University suggests chair push-ups: Place your hands on the arms of your chair and push off, lifting your bottom and feet in the air. Five to 10 "push-ups" a day will work your triceps, chest muscles and core. You can also work your thigh muscles and bottom by standing up and sitting down in your chair without using your arms. Make it harder by standing up on one leg.
  • Get on the ball. Swap that chair for an inflatable fitness ball for an all-day ab workout. "You have to use your core muscles to stay up and it encourages good posture," says Frese. Choose a size that allows you to sit with your feet flat on the floor and keeps your legs bent at a 90 degree angle.
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